What kind of person walks up to you just after you have finished lunch (cheeseburger and fries) and asks, “So, how about a doughnut for dessert?”
That kind of person is Rich Labriola. In a world increasingly dominated by people who make a lot of money sitting in front of computers all day, Labriola is an inspiring example of a self-made man who has become successful making things, things that people eat.
“And there’s nothing wrong with having a doughnut for lunch,” he says. “Or dinner.
You would be likely to find Labriola on any given day in one of the four restaurants he owns or in one of the six Stan’s Donuts outlets he operates here, including a very successful one tucked into a very unlikely place, the Northwestern Memorial Hospital complex in Streeterville.
“This business is way too hard if you don’t love it,” he says.
His road to success started quietly in south suburban Blue Island where he was raised, the youngest of four children. His grandparents had emigrated here from Italy and his father, Danny, opened a pizza joint a few years after he came home from World War II.
“My dad was a sign painter during the day and then later in the afternoon he would go to work making pizza at his place in Calumet Park,” says Labriola. “When I was just a little kid, didn’t even know how to tell time, I’d sneak into the back seat of his car and hide there and wait for him to drive to work. Even though it was only a five-minute drive I knew that once we got there he’d have no choice but to let me stay.”
So, the little boy stayed and learned to make pizzas and to sell them too, in what was little more than a storefront operation. His father sold the pizza place, which was called Danny’s Pizza, just after Rich entered Eisenhower High School. An indifferent student, he worked a number of part-time jobs after school but, he says, “I didn’t want to go to college. I had this desire to be successful but at 18 I didn’t know what ‘successful’ meant.”
While he was working those various jobs, he and a brother and brother-in-law opened a pizza place of their own in Alsip but they closed that after two up and down years. He then was working as a meter reader for Commonwealth Edison when his uncle gave him a piece of bread and in so doing changed the course of his life. He was 27 years old.
“At first I thought it was stale. It had this hard crust but man was it good, something I had never tasted before,” he says. The bread had come from a Far North Side place called Casa Nostra Baking Co. Labriola drove up there in his old Ford Escort, talked to the owner and filled his back seat with bread.
“There was nothing like it anywhere on the South Side or suburbs, so I just drove around letting people taste it,” he says. “My first bread customer was Ridge Country Club and then I got another and then another.”
Within two years — “I got fired from Com Ed,” he says — he opened a small bakery in Alsip in 1993. When he talks about these early days there is a palpable wistfulness in his voice, as when he says, “I sold those first loaves out of the trunk of my car. And then I had my own place, this little space I rented in an industrial park.”
“I admit, I didn’t know anything about making bread but I learned. All those early morning hours, mixing the dough. I read books. I took classes. I hired the best bakers I could find and I lived and breathed bread. I turned out loaves upon loaves, working to perfect my craft.”
The company took off. From small shops and cafes, his client base expanded to include some of the city’s finest restaurants, place such as Keefer’s, Tru, Gibson’s and Sunda. His company made what are called artisanal breads, such items as French baguettes, onion poppy seed rolls, brioche, raisin bread and varieties of pretzel bread that were sold across the country.
“I never took a day off. I’d bake all night and then hit the road in the early morning in my truck to drop off warm bread at these great restaurants,” he says.
At some of those places he would talk with the owners and chefs, soaking up all the information he could. And in 2008 he made a leap into that precarious clime, opening Labriola Bakery Cafe and Neapolitan Pizzeria in Oak Brook.
“It was basically just a means to promote the brand, a showcase for our breads,” he says. “But I liked the business and it started to become successful.”
In 2013 he sold his bakery (www.labriolabaking.com) and started another venture.
“I wanted to finally get in the doughnut business,” he says. “That idea was planted when I was watching a TV travel show and saw a story about Stan’s Donuts, the famous place in Los Angeles, and was just so impressed by Stan’s (Berman’s) passion. He was almost 80 then and had been in business for more than 50 years. So, I just called him.”
That was eight years ago and the two bakers talked and talked and talked. They became phone pals.
“And then I went out to meet him,” says Labriola. “His was a tiny space, with a phone on the wall. It reminded me of my dad’s pizza place.”
Eventually the two formed a partnership and the first Stan’s opened in Wicker Park in 2013. There are now six (www.stansdonutschicago.com), including one that is part of his other restaurant (www.labriolacafe.com), an ambitious and not-inexpensive-to-build full-service venture opened late in 2014 at 535 N. Michigan Ave.
“Being part of Stan’s brings out the baker in me again. There are a lot of complicated steps to making these doughnuts,” he says. “And I am deeply involved in all of our pizza recipes too, just like when I was a kid. But I know a lot more now.”
As for moving into the intensely competitive downtown restaurant scene, Labriola says, “It’s just something I needed to do. I was told I shouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it. But that’s what people have been telling me my whole life.”
Divorced with no children, he is an energetic 53 years old. He has recently added two new restaurants to his life: La Barra, specializing in pizza, has outposts in Oak Brook and Riverside (www.labarraristorante.com). He understandably refers to himself, playfully and professionally, as “Doughboy.”
“There is room for some fun,” he says. “But this business, the restaurants, the doughnuts, the pizza, there’s no stop in all this. I have been lucky, no doubt about that. But I have also listened and I have learned and I have worked as hard as I know how.”